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2012: A Year of Law and Violence
The Newtown massacre ended a year of gun violence that began with protests over the Trayvon Martin shooting. Mass shootings stole headlines from the revolt in Syria. Controversial U.S. Supreme Court rulings competed with raucous Congressional battles. Then, President Barack Obama’s re-election was obscured by haggling over the fiscal cliff.
The Affordable Care Act, or Obama-care, became a caustic symbol of Federal government intrusion. During three days of oral argument, the Solicitor General, Donald Verrilli, appeared to stumble under the smooth technique of his conservative opponent Paul Clement.
Yet, the law stood. On the last day of the Supreme Court’s calendar, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts read the decision upholding the Affordable Care Act. Anti-Obama protesters dropped to the Court’s marble plaza in anguished screams. Conservatives felt betrayed. The Obama Administration was relieved. The President had used his waning political collateral to support the healthcare law.
Clement and Verilli sparred again over Arizona’s immigration law. The embattled State enacted laws giving police officers authority to detain persons suspected of being in the country illegally. The Supreme Court ruled Arizona could demand documentation supporting legal status if the person was stopped for some other legitimate reason. Since illegal immigrants come in all nationalities, the Supreme Court has given police wide authority to question anyone’s citizenship.
Political feuding reflected a divided nation. Attorney General Eric Holder, a Democrat, was blamed for a failed Republican “Fast and Furious” gun program. Under Republican Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, weapons were sold to low-level Mexican drug-dealers with an intention of tracking them to high-level principles and arresting them. When Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent in Arizona, was killed with them, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives chose to investigate Holder. A House vote to sue Holder came within hours of Obama's Healthcare victory.
Murders in Benghazi haunted the President. On 9/11, a Taliban group attacked the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Four men were killed, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The embassy’s security budget had been cut by a Republican-controlled Congress. About that time, a video critical of Islam caused protests on three continents. Democrat Susan Rice, Oxford-educated and first Black woman to be U.N. Ambassador, came under fire after she mistakenly said the video caused the Benghazi attack. Correcting her remarks proved fruitless and Rice withdrew her bid for Secretary of State.
It was the most expensive political campaign in history. Each candidate provided starkly different paths for the country. Republican career politicians and businessmen, jostled for money and attention as they fought for the presidency. Each fell away or tripped. Willard “Mitt” Romney was left standing. A millionaire businessman and Mormon, trained at Harvard Law School, Romney and President Obama, also a Harvard-trained lawyer, slugged their way through three debates and a billion dollars in political contributions and campaign commercials.
Republicans claimed laws limiting early voting, requiring government identification, and restricting late registration would deter fraud. Democrats responded with lawsuits alleging voter suppression. Twenty-six States enacted voting laws including swing-States Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Not since the infamous Bush v. Gore case had law played such a pivotal role in a presidential election.
America’s demographics changed. The U.S. Census announced a coming minority majority. Their power was felt in voter turn-out for Obama. However, a Black president winning re-election was overshadowed by the ‘fiscal cliff.’ Laws enacted under President George W. Bush which reduced taxes for the wealthy are tied to reduced taxes for the middle-class. All expire on December 31.
And, through it all, Syrians died. President Bashar al-Assad would rather rule over death and debris than share power. The Arab Spring was as short-lived as the Prague Spring of 1968, for which it was named. In that fateful year, 1968, America saw more than its share of gun violence, legal challenges, and civil unrest. Then, social convictions were challenged by African-Americans demanding legal protections and personal freedom. Today, it is gay rights.
This year the U.S. Supreme Court took an appeal of two gay marriage cases. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Under DOMA, the Federal government does not recognize gay marriage. Edie Windsor challenged DOMA, suing the Federal government because she and her gay spouse could not receive tax benefits which accrue to heterosexual married couples.
Protesters spoke against “Stop and Frisk.” Hurricane Sandy caused tens of billions in damage while revealing America’s economic disparity. But, it was Adam Lanza who broke America’s heart. When Lanza took the lives of Newtown first graders and their teachers he became this year’s seventh mass murderer and part of a sputtering gun control debate.
The NRA proposed armed guards in every school. Mistakes and child deaths by friendly fire would be collateral damage many are willing to risk. Mental illness and guns proved beyond the reach of weary law-makers working with anemic budgets.
Protesters marched in major cities over the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Martin, a Black teen, was fatally shot in Florida, by George Zimmerman who claimed self-defense. Florida's "Stand Your Ground" gun law, like those in 26 States, allows anyone who feels threatened to shoot to kill. Protesters argued that "Stand Your Ground" laws permitted Whites to kill innocent people of color, like Trayvon Martin, with impunity.
Whether suburban massacres by assault weapon or urban shootings this has been a year of record lawlessness. Since the world did not end with the Mayan calendar, there is yet another chance to live based on this simple rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present” and a journalist covering the U.S. Supreme Court. @GBrowneMarshall #GloriaBrowne